WASHINGTON — The U.S. Bureau of Prisons paid more than $2 million in bonuses to top administrators and wardens during the past three years while the agency was confronting persistent overcrowding, sub-par inmate medical care, chronic staffing shortages and a lurid sexual harassment lawsuit that engulfed its largest institution, according to government records and court documents.
The awards ranged from a $7,000 payment last year to a D.C. administrator, to $28,000 to the agency’s acting director Thomas Kane, and $25,500 for Deborah Schult, assistant director of the Health Services Division. The bulk of the payments, nearly $1 million, were approved last year and amounted to almost double the combined amounts in the previous two years.
At least nine of the agency’s top executives whose payments were approved last year also received similar awards in 2015. And among the biggest recipients last year were four executives who held senior leadership posts at the agency's largest complex in Coleman, Fla., during the course of a sexual harassment lawsuit involving hundreds of current and former female staffers who alleged that prison managers repeatedly failed to protect them from years of horrific sexual harassment and threats from inmates.
A $20 million settlement of the legal action is currently pending before a federal judge.
The bonus payments, especially those approved for top administrators at Coleman, have prompted outrage from staffers and union officials who were instrumental in bringing the legal action on behalf of more than 500 female staffers who were were subjected to sexually-charged threats and abuse during the course of 16 years, according to court documents.
Sandra Parr, a vice president of the national union of prison workers, said the Coleman bonus recipients, two of whom retired in January, were made aware of the deep problems at the prison but "did nothing to fix anything.''
"These people got bonuses off the backs of people who were actually dealing with the predators,'' Parr said, adding that the pool of victims grew so large because top agency officials "chose to ignore it.''
Bonuses for officials at troubled prison
One of the Coleman officials, Tamyra Jarvis, the warden at the sprawling facility, received performance awards totaling $34,500 during the past two years before retiring in January. Jarvis, who recently was appointed corrections director in Escambia County, Fla., did not respond to an inquiry by USA TODAY.
“There is no justification at all — none that I can think of — for these people to be rewarded,’’ said Joe Rojas, president of the local union that helped gather much of the evidence showing that the sexually charged harassment and abuse went on for more than 15 years. "I am frustrated beyond belief.''
Bureau spokesman Justin Long acknowledged the bonus payments, saying that the awards were authorized by Office of Personnel Management guidelines. He said the Justice Department's pool of available money was recently increased, consistent with an executive order issued by the Obama administration in 2015, urging a "strengthening of our (senior executive service).''
That guidance and a fuller complement of administrators serving at the agency last year, Long said, resulted in the recent surge in awards. Long, however, declined to provide the information that supported top prison officials' eligibility for the bonus payments.
"The specific information or rationale for each senior executive's performance award is not releasable,'' Long said, adding that the written justifications could contain references to prison security measures.
The agency also declined requests for interviews with the acting director and other bonus recipients.
Yet the timing of the payments come as bureau operations have been the focus of extremely critical examinations by the Justice Department's inspector general and others for more than the past year.
Last year, the inspector general found that prison authorities were struggling to provide adequate medical care to thousands of inmates because of persistent staffing shortages. Those personnel problems had left some institutions with vacancy rates of 40% or higher.
One former BOP official told government auditors that medical staffing vacancies had reached a "crisis level'' at some agency facilities, as the agency had been increasingly unable to compete with the private sector in recruiting medical professionals to provide necessary health care.
History of staffing shortages
The staffing shortages, according to a USA TODAY examination last year, were cascading across the vast system, often forcing nurses, physical therapists and other senior medical staffers to fill gaps on guard duty and other security-related shifts.
Many of the reassigned medical staffers were being drawn from the ranks of the uniformed U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), whose members have little or no experience providing security inside the overcrowded federal system, USA TODAY found.
The agency has acknowledged the practice, known as "augmentation,'' saying that "adequately staffing custody posts is critical'' to securing the system. Nevertheless, the controversial deployments last year drew the ire of then-Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., who called for a halt to it. But as recently as this month, prison staffers and union officials said that the practice continues in institutions across the system.
Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also offered a critique of prison conditions in Miami, recommending a "hazard alert" notice, concluding that incidents of violence had been "prevalent'' during contraband searches of inmates who were under the influence of illicit drugs.
But the settlement of the sexual harassment lawsuit at Coleman, one of the largest of its kind, has drawn the most recent critical attention to bureau operations.
During the course of the case, which featured allegations that inmates routinely masturbated in front of female workers and threatened them with rape, victims' attorneys and union officials argued that for years bureau managers and top administrators did little or nothing to intervene.
According to court documents, prison managers routinely either destroyed incident reports detailing the inmate conduct or disregarded the complaints altogether. In one case in which an inmate got close enough to ejaculate on a staffer's leg, a manager acknowledged "shredding'' the staffer's complaint because the staffer could not positively identify the substance as semen since she was "not medical personnel.''
Rojas, the local union official who has long battled with prison administrators on work conditions, said there is "no doubt'' that top leaders at the prison were aware of the sexually-charged in environment, including those who were awarded bonuses for their work.
"They were aware of the information and they chose to ignore it,'' Rojas said. "These guys got bonuses like clockwork and there is no justification for it.''